Art as Public Works Projects

 ART : Art as Public Works Projects : An artist, teacher and writer, Deborah Small will rent billboards to get her messages across

April 19, 1992|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is the arts editor at the San Diego Edition of The Times

SAN DIEGO — Deborah Small has spent the past year investigating the murders of 45 San Diego women, reading pulp bodice-ripper romance novels and tracking down interracial love scenes in Hollywood movies.

None of this has been just for pleasure: Small’s work over the last decade has turned research into art, combining revisionist history and visual spectacle. Her themes invariably are social and, most often, have a feminist viewpoint, and her artwork, often done in collaboration with other artists, has been seen both on the streets of San Diego and in conventional art galleries nationwide.

On a recent Sunday morning, Small sat down for coffee in her tiny, Spartan La Jolla cottage and talked about her work. It was one of a series of such conversations that have taken place over the past few months.

At 43, Small usually appears very calm and collected, she speaks softly and laughs often, but her words are measured and careful, as would be expected from one who has spent her life in academia: Small is currently the acting director of the Warren College Writing Program in the department of literature at UC San Diego. She also clearly wants to be precise about things she’s thought a lot about.

This morning, however, Small seemed more harried than usual. And with reason. She and four other artists–Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, Carla Kirkwood and Scott Kessler–had just unveiled a collaborative project, “NHI,” involving a pair of downtown billboards, a gallery show and a performance piece–all focusing on the murders of 45 San Diego County women classified as prostitutes, transients and drug addicts. According to newspaper reports, the victims have been labeled by some police with the old-time term “NHI”–No Humans Involved–and many of their deaths, which date back as far as 1985, remain unsolved.

Small was animated talking about the recent opening for the project, which had drawn crowds to the gallery and attracted much attention from the local media. But there was no time to revel in past successes. She had two impending appointments on her mind: That afternoon, she and another collaborator from a different project, artist and Chicano activist David Avalos, were due at UCSD’s Grove Gallery to take down their multimedia show “mis-ce-ge-NATION,” a video and installation about the terror and attraction to mixed-race romance in movies like “West Side Story.” The show, which was first seen last year in Boulder, Colo., contrasts the tragedy of the movies with the realities of today’s Southern California family, which often is mixed-race many times over.

Photos of smiling brown, yellow and white kids lined the gallery walls, and the gallery-as-screening room had become a makeshift bedroom, complete with a king-size serape-covered bed. (Small says she likes people to be comfortable when they look at art and/or video, and she always includes benches or chairs in her installations. This time a bed seemed appropriate for watching TV, she laughs.)

Two days later, Small would fly off to Cambridge, Mass., to install a solo show at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. There, she would show her three major recent works, a collection of narratives about captivity that have been collectively titled “Our Bodice, Our Selves.” They explore real stories and myths of the victimization of white women by savage natives–starting with the famous capture in 1676 of the Puritan Mary Rowlandson by the Narragansett Indians, leading to images and texts about the captivity of Daniel Boone’s daughter Jemima, in 1776, and finishing with an array of covers from contemporary pulp fiction of lurid romances with savage captors, among them “Savage Dreams,” “Tender Savage” and “Savage Bliss.” All the works in this series also were shown last fall at the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

Small is the second of five children and was born in Ohio and raised there until she was 12. Her family moved often, she said, but she spent much of her adolescence in Pennsylvania. Small’s father was a civilian working in an Army depot, and her mother was a social worker.

Her first job out of college–she graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970–was as an occupational therapist. She says she used lots of large dominoes and blocks, tools that would later inform the simple graphic format of her work.

It was only in the early 1980s, after returning to school at UC Irvine, that she became an artist. Even as an undergraduate, though, she garnered attention for politically charged artworks, among them one about water conservation that turned toilets into art galleries.

She received a MFA degree from UC San Diego in 1983, and her graduate thesis was a book and exhibition about the nuclear testing of the Bikini Atoll islands, for which she created a strange and often playful narrative in the school-primer style of Dick-and-Jane readers.

In 1986, Small had a solo show at the short-lived Anuska Gallery in San Diego, the only show she’s ever had at a commercial gallery. “That San Diego doesn’t have many commercial galleries makes it very different from other large cities,” Small said of her decision to stay in a town where she can’t make a living from her art.

“Since you can’t sell here, there’s no pressure to conform to a commercial market. I think that’s very healthy.”

Small admits it doesn’t pay the rent, however. “For me, there’s always this enormous pressure to make a living,” she said, adding that she could probably count on one hand the number of sales of artworks she’s made in her life. This despite the fact that Small’s numerous books–many of them self-published–have been widely distributed, and her work widely seen and reviewed.

Still, it’s enough to make her think that her first career is as a teacher, and art is something done in whatever time is available.

“A career is how you make a living. Art is something else.” Small’s commitment to the art is thorough, and involves far-ranging research that often takes years. Her recent works range from the blatant confrontationalism of “NHI” to the cumulative narrative of the captivity series, which includes blown-up photocopies of texts, engravings, book covers and illustrations, all of which point out disparities between myths of sexy, brutal savages and more candid firsthand accounts by some captives.

Rowlandson, for example, tells in one passage in “The Woods” of throwing away a biscuit given her by an Indian, afraid it might contain magic that would make her fall in love with her captor. She also relates that she was treated kindly. Her Puritan rescuers, however, took a different view of the story: “None can imagine,” wrote Increase Mather in a preface to a roughly contemporaneous account of Rowlandson’s experience, “what it is to be captivated and enslaved to such Atheistical, proud, wild, cruel, barbarous, brutish (in one word) diabolical creatures.” All of these texts are included in Small’s colorful panels.

Mather’s style of interpretation took hold, and it is this version that governs the K mart fiction that also has obsessed the artist. “I thought it was very funny, but also very tragic too. I read about 25 of them, and they were all the same. I found myself not remembering which was which, and the narratives on the backs of the books certainly don’t help.”

The project is an exploration of the “historical fear and fascination with ‘Indians.’ ” It is also, on a more subtle level, a rather glaring look at rape fantasies.

Although the themes vary, all of Small’s art, including the collaborations, share a method of questioning, without giving answers. “I think I have something to say about the world,” Small said, “but I don’t take myself that seriously in the sense of thinking I have all the answers.”

Her questioning has taken her to El Salvador, where in 1988 she produced, with a group called Las Gringas, a performance piece about human rights abuses there.

She also recently completed “1492,” a book with poetry by Maggie Jaffe published by Monthly Review Press, which culls together images and text from three large installations about Christopher Columbus’ “invasion” of the Americas. That project, begun in 1985, explores the racial, economic and sexual politics of Columbus and the missionaries’ colonialization, and has resulted in both very gripping and serious texts, as well as some more humorous images:

In one installation, in an attempt to show the absurdity of the settlers’ claims that the women they encountered and “conquered” were Amazons, Small created enormous larger-than-life cut-outs of women with long, bushy red hair and used them to surround the smaller, white males.

It is this sort of tactic of poking fun at some of the historical accounts that humanizes her material and keeps it from being too didactic. To Small, whatever the subject, her point of view is unwavering: She sees herself as a white feminist, working with other artists of other backgrounds, and she says she knows that she can bring only her own perspective to whatever she does.

The tactics are very different with the public work, however, which has been presented entirely outside the traditional museum or nonprofit gallery system, although Installation Gallery sponsored the artists’ applications for some grants. Some of the “NHI” group has also worked together on a series of advertising posters, all with the theme “America’s Finest?”–mocking a common San Diego promotional slogan. One work questioned San Diego’s refusal to name its new convention center after Martin Luther King Jr., another attacked local police for excessive use of deadly force.

For all of these, Small and the others made a conscious decision to focus only on local issues and to get their message across through advertising space, although for “NHI” they also rented a storefront and turned it into a gallery and performance area. By operating outside traditional art venues and organizing all of the administrative matters themselves, the artists have been able to avoid outside input or censorship.

“I’ve never felt compelled to only show in galleries,” Small said. “There’s always other places–you don’t get the financial support, but you often get a more targeted audience.

“The different works don’t feel all that different to me, though. There are real different strategies, of course. Obviously, for example, timing is not crucial on the works shown in galleries, other than having them done on time. But with the public works, it’s real important. Making sure we don’t get the press release out before the billboard goes up, otherwise the billboard people might say ‘No.’ Or talking to the media, for that matter. When you put work in a gallery, the media doesn’t talk to you. It’s not about that, they do reviews.

“With the public works, there’s a lot of pressure not to make a fool of yourself, and not to say something stupid. When you have an opportunity to say something, to really say something important, to get your message out there. There’s pressure to do that.”

Once the work is up, because it uses such public, advertising modes of communication, the inevitable question to the artists has been “Is it art?” This comes from media interviewers, particularly broadcast media, from politicians reacting to the work and often from the public. It is the kind of question that most artists don’t have to answer publicly, and yet Small and her colleagues have found that their answer to that question is a crucial key–or potential impasse–to getting their message across.

“I really don’t think the reason for doing this is all that dissimilar from doing work in galleries,” Small continued. “You have ideas and you want to get them out there in the world. With ‘NHI,’ we’re talking about public issues, so the best place to discuss public issues is in public venues. I think putting public issues in a gallery would be much less effective and would aestheticize everything in a way that would be really stupid.”

These political collaborations work would appear to have little to do with issues of aesthetics, but Small says that she sees much of what she learned in art school as pertinent to their makeup.

“We’re trying to use all our skills as artists–in graphics, in presentation–and there are some questions we can ask that maybe reporters can’t ask. We don’t have to be as objective.

“But mostly, we’re trying to get the attention on the issue, not on us. And I think that we’ve been pretty successful.”

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